03 July 2016

A Guest's Hospitality

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Year C, Proper 9
(track 2)

If there is a theme that stands out in today’s readings it might be joy.  The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Jerusalem to rejoice and be glad. The Psalmist tells all the lands to be joyful in God. In the Gospel the seventy are sent out ahead of Jesus and they return with joy. The work that God has for us to do is meant to fill us with joy. If that’s not good news I don’t know what is.  What is the work? In Galatians Paul tells us to work for the good of all and to bear each other’s burdens.

I could just give a nice three sentence sermon today.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Be joyful. Great talk. Enjoy your holiday weekend.

Except there is a little bit more to say.

Our readings today are also about vulnerability. The people rejoicing in Jerusalem were home from exile and everything was supposed to be great again. For the whole time they’d been in exile the prophets had been telling them it was going to be great. And then they got there and the city was in ruins. The buildings were crumbling. The fields were full of weeds. After years in exile the Israelites troubles were supposed to be over. Instead they have more hard work to do.

The prophet uses the powerful image of a mother caring for her child to encourage them once again to trust in the promises God had made to them, and to be willing to do the work that is necessary even when the outcome seems uncertain, to have faith that their hard work will reap joy.

In the Gospel, we see an even greater vulnerability. The seventy are sent with no food, no water, no spare tunic, no money, no way to defend themselves against bandits on the road and no way to respond to those to who reject them except to shake the dust off their feet. They are to go to strange places bringing nothing but peace with them, enter the homes of strangers, eat their food and hear their stories.  And it works. The seventy are sent out and they return with joy.

That vulnerability is also a kind of hospitality. Of course there’s the hospitality of the strangers who welcomed the seventy. They opened their homes to these wandering prophets, but it’s also about the hospitality of the guests. The seventy who were sent were subject to dietary and other purity laws that would have made eating at a stranger’s house impossible and yet Jesus asked them to go and sleep in these strange beds and eat this strange food.

It’s not, when you get down to it, the hospitality of the hosts that is astonishing here. It’s the hospitality of the guests. How easy would it be for you to go to a stranger’s home, someone who didn’t look like you or sound like you or act like you? You can bring a friend with you, but you cannot bring a snack or your favorite pillow. How comfortable would you be eating their food, sleeping in their guest rooms, listening to their stories?

Listening to other people’s stories is harder than you might think. You have to listen fully, without interrupting, and you have to believe that the story they’re telling you is their real experience.  And you have to listen for points of agreement, instead of jumping in to tell the storyteller why they’re wrong,  even when the story makes you uncomfortable

This kind of listening doesn’t come easily to many of us. But it is a skill that can be learned, and one that is worth learning because it makes it possible to build relationships with our sisters and brothers beyond these walls.

The diversity strategy of this church, for as long as I’ve been here, and of every other church I’ve been involved with, has been founded on the hospitality of a host. We are happy to welcome people into this building. We are glad when new people show up, and we want them to stay and be fully engaged in the life of the church. We are so firm in our belief in the hospitality of a host that we are sometimes willing to go as far outside as the front lawn to eat lunch with each other and as many of the passers-by as the children of the parish can cajole into joining us.

I love this building. This building, this physical space with its stone and stained glass and wooden pews, artful altar hangings, and vibrant flowers, is a joy and a comfort. We use the walls of this sanctuary and the rest of the building to do a lot of good things. We marry and bury and baptize people, we feed the hungry and the lonely, we house the homeless, at least for one week a year, and we collect money to send out into the world reach the people who aren’t here. We come to Christ’s table for solace and strength, pardon and renewal.  We pray for each other, and lift each other up and sometimes we even allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to admit weakness, to ask for help, to weep in the pews.

 But this building’s stone walls can keep people out and our message in. Yes, we feed the poor and house the homeless and clothe the naked. Yes, as we say in our baptismal covenant, we seek and serve Christ in all persons, and we strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, but as long as we are within these walls, the people who most need us to do those things won’t know about it.  And as long as we are within these walls, the only stories we will hear are our own.

The last time St. Andrew’s was in a time of transition, the Rector Search committee held a lot of listening meetings. People told the stories of how they came to St. Andrew’s, what they found when they got here, and what made them stay. Those were good meetings. We learned a lot about each other and about what St. Andrew’s does well. But there were a lot of stories we didn’t hear.

We didn’t hear the stories of the people who came to St. Andrew’s for a while and then left. We didn’t hear the stories of the people who would never think to walk through our doors in the first place. What was it Paul said in Galatians? Work for the good of all. All is a big word, a lot bigger than the number of people who fit in these pews.

Have you ever wondered why despite being in the middle of a majority minority county, St. Andrew’s remains . . . how do I say this . . . less diverse than we might be? We have friendly greeters, a strong and growing children’s program, beautiful music, and an ample coffee hour. Within these walls we have much to recommend us. I think the answer is that while we are pretty good at welcoming the stranger, we are not very good at being the stranger.

I’m not suggesting we give up the hospitality of the host. This is not an either / or question. It is a "yes, and . . . " question. Yes, we should continue and build on all these good things that we’re doing, and we should begin to build up new things we’ve never done.

 The question is then, where do we start? I don’t feel equipped for this kind of ministry. But then the seventy weren’t equipped either. They were de-equipped. They had only the clothes on their backs and each other. What do we need to start being gracious guests in our community? Where should we go? These are questions I don’t have the answers to, but I believe we can answer them together, with God’s help.

This time of transition is the perfect starting point. We’re already standing in the doorway between what was and what will be, and if we’re already in the doorway, we might as well step outside. I’ll be very much surprised if we don’t return a little better at bearing each other’s burdens, a little better at working for the good of all, and, as the seventy were, filled with joy.

"Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide"

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